by David Podvin
On December 1, 2003, Howard Dean was ahead by twenty points in the polls when he appeared on Hardball with Chris Matthews and said, "We're going to break up the giant media enterprises." This pronouncement went far beyond the governor's previous public musings about possibly re-regulating the communications industry. It amounted to a declaration of war on the corporations that administer the flow of information in the United States.
The media giants quickly responded by crushing his high-flying campaign with the greatest of ease. This time, they didn't even have to invent a scandal in order to achieve the desired result; merely by chanting the word "unelectable" at maximum volume, the mainstream media maneuvered democratic voters into switching their support to someone who poses no threat to the status quo.
John Kerry is a member of a group of politicians whose disagreements with the mercantile elite tend to be merely rhetorical. Any doubts about Kerry's level of commitment to his stated progressive beliefs were answered in 1994 when he proclaimed himself "delighted" with the Republican takeover of Congress (Boston Globe, New York Times). The media oligarchy knows that a general election race between Kerry and George W. Bush will insure a continuation of its monopoly, regardless of who wins.
The news cartel had always been hostile to Dean. Independent surveys revealed that he had received the most negative coverage of any candidate except Dennis Kucinich (the only other contender who strongly favors mandatory media divestment). But after his statement on Hardball, reporting about Dean abruptly came to an end and was replaced by supposition.
By mid-December, the news divisions of the four major television networks were reporting as fact that Dean was unelectable. The print media echoed the theme; on December 17, the Washington Post printed a front-page story that posited Dean could not win the presidency. The Post quickly followed up with an onslaught of articles and editorials reasserting that claim. Before the month was over, Dean's lack of electability had been highlighted in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and every other major paper in the United States.
As 2004 began, Time and Newsweek simultaneously ran cover stories emphasizing that Dean was unelectable. In the weeks before the Iowa caucus, the ongoing topic of discussion on the political panel shows was that Dean was unelectable. National talk radio shows repeatedly stressed that Dean was unelectable. The corporate Internet declared that Dean was unelectable. And the mainstream media continued with the storyline that Dean was unelectable right up until Iowans attended their caucuses. Iowa Democrats could not watch a television or listen to a radio or read a newspaper or go online without learning that Howard Dean was unelectable.
On January 19, Democratic caucus goers in Iowa - who were the initial intended audience for this propaganda disguised as reportage - overwhelmingly repudiated Dean, telling pollsters they believed he was unelectable. Later that evening, Dean yelled encouragement to his supporters at a pep rally, an incident that provided the pretext for the coup de grâce.
During the week leading up to the New Hampshire primary, the media obsessed about Dean's "bizarre" rally incident, adding "un-presidential" and "emotionally unstable" to its descriptions of the governor. The unified message was that Dean had self-destructed. When he finished a distant second in New Hampshire, journalists and pundits hailed the defeat as confirmation of their premise that Dean had always been unelectable.
Yet there had been no tangible basis for that assertion. At the beginning of 2004, a poll conducted by Time magazine showed that Dean trailed Bush by only six points. That was a smaller deficit than Gore faced shortly before the general election in 2000, and he wound up getting the most popular votes. Undaunted by this evidence to the contrary, reporters adhered to the motif that Dean had absolutely no chance.
It is not what a politician does that creates a scandal. It is whether the television networks and major metropolitan newspapers respond to the incident with saturation coverage. When a presidential candidate who was committed to deregulating the corporate media got caught lying about breaking the law, the importance of the event was minimized. When a presidential candidate who was committed to breaking up the corporate media got caught shouting at a pep rally, the importance of the event was maximized.
Howard Dean's campaign now lies in ruins because he chose to confront the multinational conglomerates that run this country. If Dean is so resilient that he fights his way back into contention, the Fourth Estate will be ready to batter him again. In the United States of America, people who pose a threat to the reigning corporate establishment are destroyed. Or, as the Soviets used to put it, emotionally unstable individuals who deviate from the party line are guilty of engaging in "self-destruction".